Friday, March 06, 2009

priestly or prophetic?

One of my preaching professors referenced another of my professors (the religion & society one from last semester, in case you care), saying that there are personality types of "priestly" or "prophetic." He said this effects the way we learn, teach, communicate, and pastor (as well as preach)--in short, how we interpret life. Here's what I wrote down in my notes:

"Priests" are convergent, synthetic thinkers, wanting everything to agree, line up, fit together, etc. Priests are apt to miss things that don't fit, because they're looking for things that fit.

"Prophets" are fascinated by how things don't fit, discrepancies, divergences, violations and exceptions. (He said they are euphoric when they find a typo, a grammatical error and an incorrect fact all on the same page.)

Concretely, this means that “priests” are in danger of missing out on even seeing the things that don't fit (so he suggested they never get jobs as proofreaders). “Prophets” will be able to point out discrepancies, deconstruct something and analyze it, but the danger is leaving it there all deconstructed with no way to fit it back together into a coherent whole.

I would add that most of us probably have a mixture of these two sets of characteristics, although some are extreme personalities in one direction or the other.

It's interesting because this way of thinking about the way we interpret the world has come to mind often for me in my preaching class. What is preaching for? To me it is for listening to God and then challenging myself and those around me to follow God more completely. For someone with a more "priestly" bent, perhaps it is more edification and encouragement. Both are probably important, but I tend to think we need challenge more than we need to feel good about ourselves. But that's just me...

Last week in preaching class we talked about "public issues preaching." By this, the professors mean issues that concern the public's business, as in the world around us, not just the community of those who attend worship with us. One of our professors outlined five basic kinds of preaching (taken from Old, A History of Preaching, written in the 19th century, I believe): expository (explaining and filling out a certain biblical text), evangelistic (to those who do not call themselves "Christian"), catechetical or doctrinal (on a specific doctrine of the church or text like the Apostle's Creed), festal (for feast-days, holidays, or special occasions like weddings and funerals), and prophetic (under which "public issues preaching" falls). He said that of these five, the "prophetic" preaching will occur least often.

Now, I come from a Quaker community where someone preaches basically every Sunday, but the idea that prophetic preaching is the least common is totally foreign to me. It's actually hard to imagine a Quaker message that didn't include a public issue! For Quakers, it seems to me, our life as a person of faith is so wrapped up in how we live our lives from day to day that we don't have as much of a problem as some other denominations of different "spheres" of life. I think that's awesome! I wouldn't want to be part of a community that didn't speak on public issues.

I think some of the things that were said about public issues preaching were helpful--like it's important to remember the level of authority people give us just by the simple fact that we're in the "pulpit" (or at least standing up front, as in most Quaker programmed meetings). This authority is spiritual authority. We aren't supposed to tell people how to vote. That's where it gets scary, even if the preacher is suggesting people vote how I'd like them to! But instead, the role of the preacher is to help people think about all areas of life--including public issues they face--from a theological perspective.

To me this is exactly why public issues preaching should happen every week! If our lives are lived "in public," in interaction with other people, living out agreed-upon codes of conduct as we as a political community have decided, it is of utmost importance to me that we pay attention to whether or not those policies are moral, just, loving and life-giving for all. We cannot divorce our public issues from our "private" faith. We don't need to make people believe the same things as we do in terms of posting the 10 Commandments or taking a literal interpretation of scripture on things like creation. But we do need to make sure that the ways we're living our lives are consistent with things like God's love for creation, and a holistic living-out of the 10 Commandments in a way that shows love for God and neighbor (including enemy).

This is where it gets difficult philosophically, because how do we know what is "right," what should be lawful, what is just, etc.? Is it only based on what is self-evident regarding what is good for people? Well, yes, in some ways--because God desires what is good for people. But this should not slide into Utilitarianism on the one hand (the most good for the most number, and if you're part of the unfortunate 49.9% you're out of luck), or Altruism on the other (which looks like it cares about people but really only cares about the self and one's own image, see Ayn Rand!). No, this must be truly what is good for ALL. No one can be left out. No one can be an innocent bystander or be sacrificed by a lesser evil in order to prevent a greater evil.

That was a little bonus paragraph that probably should be a different post.

Anyway, my point is that if we live a faith that encourages this kind of love for all, we have to talk about it all the time! We have to challenge ourselves to live it out truly, rather than just have an amorphous, vague kind of love for people. When we don't challenge ourselves, when we just congratulate ourselves on how well we're doing, we miss out on the fact that, for example, our ability to heat our meetinghouses is generally based on murdering people in Iraq or who-knows-where-else to get the fossil fuels to make electricity. So what can we do about all these ways that we live our life "in public," and live it in a way that is more consistent with the good news of the gospel, which is good news for the poor, blind, imprisoned and oppressed?

So how can one preach a sermon that is NOT prophetic, and expect to be speaking any kind of word from God for our time???

Maybe it's just that Quakers are on the whole more of a prophetic denomination, or maybe it's just that I'm more of a prophetic personality, and so I have a hard time seeing the point in just "priestly" actions. What good does it do to give people a cracker and a sip of grape juice each week? What good does it do to read the Bible, "The Word of the Lord, praise be to God," if we don't live it? How can we live it if we don't challenge each other to do so more and more each day?

I finished this post, and then thought about it a little more. I thought about "Convergent Friends," and how this is probably a more "priestly" movement within Quakerism, but I think it's really good. And I finished reading Robin's post on her leadings toward ministries of hospitality and bringing people together, and hear the Spirit moving in her words.

It's not that the "priestly" things are bad, generally speaking (although some of them may be unnecessary, and some may be outright horrible, only ensuring their own job security). We need "priests" who bring people together, see connections and similarities, and encourage people.

But this "priestly" work of convergence, bringing disparate parts together, comfort and unification should also include a prophetic element. To stop when the "priestly" work is over is to miss the point. True ministry is not just making sure one's denomination continues, but true ministry supports and encourages people (priestly) so they have a safe and healthy space from which to move out into doing that which they are called to in the world around them (prophetic).

1 comment:

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Yet another excellent posting. And thank you for this one! I've never thought of the contrast between "prophetic" and "priestly" quite this way. I'm more inclined to see the prophet as someone who is himself (herself) a discrepancy, than as someone who points them out. But, obviously, you're right: pointing out discrepancies is part of the job description.

In my former meeting, in Denver, one of our weightiest Friends once spoke about the difference between "prophetic ministry" and "teaching ministry". It's not quite the same distinction as the one you write of here. The focal characteristic of "teaching ministry" is a desire to transmit information; "prophetic ministry" is defined by its openings, which sometimes demand that the minister say or do things that no one understands.